The thing about Zack Greer's game is that he could play lacrosse in a phone booth. No need for expansive, open-field lawns. Simply allow him a stick, a ball and wiggle room.
Consider the shot he dialed up with three seconds remaining in last May's national semifinal against Cornell with the score knotted 11-11 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. Already carrying a hat trick on his stick, Greer, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound attack draped by Big Red short stick defenseman Danny Nathan (5-11, 200), failed to shed his shadow in the dying moments. From across the goal Duke midfielder Peter Lamade eyed Greer and the Whitby, Ontario native stayed true to his Canadian, box-lacrosse roots.
In staving off Nathan, he created a needle-eye-sized passing lane thru which Lamade threaded a diagonal feed. Able to separate from the face-guarding Nathan for a millisecond, the left-handed Greer received the ball, pivoted with his right foot and deposited the ball past Cornell's all-American goalie Matt McMonagle's right elbow. "That's just a play that Canadians make with ease," says Duke coach John Danowski.
It was not a national-title winning goal, but it was a release. As a freshman, Greer had returned home for Christmas break to see his father, Dan, suffer through his final, colon cancer-stricken days and pass away. That spring, still grieving yet not missing a game, Greer led the nation with 57 goals -- a new national freshman record -- and Duke reached the Final Four in Philadelphia. "It was an emotional whirlwind," Greer says.
Nine months later, his sophomore season was canceled eight games in and then-Duke coach Mike Pressler was forced to resign when three teammates were falsely accused of rape. Before learning that there would, in fact, be lacrosse again at Duke, he considered transferring, but remained after the program was reinstated. As a junior, Greer led the nation in goals again -- finishing with 67, three short of the all-time, single-season NCAA Division I mark. Individual accolades aside -- that campaign ended on the doorstep of a national title. "This is bittersweet," said Greer -- who had shaved a maple leaf shape into his hair and dyed it red for the game -- in the locker room after losing, 12-11, to John Hopkins.
Three years prior, Pressler first laid eyes on Greer -- then playing midfielder for the Gary Gait-coached Canadian team at the International Lacrosse Federation Under-19 World Games in Towson, Md. Pressler's assistant, John Lantzy, had received a tip from his former player Brad MacArthur. "He was the best goal-scoring 15-year-old I've ever seen," MacArthur had told Lantzy.
Greer gained more exposure after hanging a hat trick in Canada's championship game loss to the U.S., which featured future line-mate Danowski. "He was used to playing the Canadian box game with that small hockey net," Pressler says. "You could see if you give him an American net it's suddenly like shooting in the ocean."
As a Versus-watching, Les Habitants-loving Canadian, Greer traces his roots to suburban Toronto near Lake Ontario. Growing up, Greer's stick work was two-fold, playing hockey in the family's backyard rink and shooting at the lacrosse goals. Lining the areas near the lacrosse goals were eight-foot-high nets hung by his father to corral shots gone awry, and between the pipes stood older sister Kalley, a goalkeeper. Alongside him outside the crease was older brother, Bill, reloading and shooting away. "It's one thing to have the goal," Greer's mother, Irene, says. "But it's another thing to have a challenger between the pipes."
A perfectionist no matter the stick -- he was shaped by a lacrosse-friendly area where the box game -- played in rinks with a floor layer over the ice -- reigned. With nets measuring four feet by four feet as opposed to the NCAA's six feet by four feet standard, a tightness to goal-scoring movements is necessary. "We're used to high-risk, fast-paced offense off the boards," says MacArthur, who coached Greer as a youth. "The learning curve between the styles is in the thought process -- not the skill set."
Though he put down his hockey stick the year before he arrived in Durham, the southpaw brought his box-game traits south with him. It was in practice that he found his complement in Danowski -- a right-handed attackman from Long Island. Before Greer's arrival, the Blue Devils endured a 5-8 season in 2005. Passes from Danowski bounced off teammates' helmets and sticks -- not always finding a seamless path to the goal. "It's not comedic when you're losing," Lantzy says.
The class that entered with Danowski -- the first to be fully funded scholarship-wise -- proved promising, but Greer was the program changer a year later. Since his arrival, Duke is 55-5 when Greer -- who has never missed a game -- scores a goal and 38-0 when he scores a hat trick. "It was just a perfect match in time," says Lantzy, who now coaches at nearby Durham (N.C.) Academy.
The pair -- which counts for two of the five finalists for the Tewaaraton Award as the nation's top player -- now sit atop two record-book perches together. Last week in the NCAA opening round against Loyola, Danowski -- the reigning Tewaaraton winner who was awarded a fifth year by the NCAA for Duke's truncated 2006 campaign -- set the all-time career points record at 347. "There's an unspoken chemistry between Zack," says Danowski, who rooms with Greer on the road.
A week earlier, in the season finale against St. John's, the Blue Devils Koskinen Stadium was dressed up as Little Canada. On Greer's left sleeve, he wore a maple leaf flag. From the flag post hung the maple leaf flag, and "O Canada" played -- all in anticipation of Greer setting the NCAA record for career goals in less than four full seasons -- which he did in the third period. Greer -- who is one of four Canadians in the season's NCAA goals leaders -- finished the day with seven goals. "The things that the box game's skill set helps you do is score goals," says Gait, a Canadian who ranks third on the all-time NCAA goals scored list with 191.
What separates Greer -- an eccentric off the field what with his pink electric guitar, hair-dying penchant and orange and black dirt bike -- is not only his ability to establish position, but his willingness to absorb punishment. Whether it is Danowski whipping a no-look pass or an opponent stabbing at his wrists, Greer -- who has started each game of his career -- has withstood the poundings. "How many guys are even willing to leave themselves open to a defender striking you across the ribs with his titanium stick?" says Army coach Joe Alberici, who was a Duke assistant during Greer's freshman and sophomore years.
On Sunday, Greer and Duke will stand and attempt to deliver their third national semifinal berth in four years. Just south of the Canadian border on Cornell University's campus in upstate New York they face Ohio State's high-powered attack.
Once the title run is over Greer, 22, will have decisions to make. As a Duke senior who received his sociology degree last Saturday -- he has the option of returning for a fifth year like Danowski. Already in the history books, he could also turn pro. He has also spoken with family about working outside the box -- namely pursuing life as a secret agent. "We were watching one of the Bourne movies and he said that's what he wants to do," his brother says.
Still tightening his game and lips, Greer is not saying he will return to be a super senior or leave to be a secret agent. "It's a call I'm just not ready to make," Greer says.